Live By Night
January does not seem to be the month to release your stylishly violent gangland mini-epic. It didn’t work for Gangster Squad in 2013, and it’s not looking much better for Live By Night. While not as ridiculously self-serious, Ben Affleck’s latest turn as a director can never quite get off the ground.
In front of the camera, he plays Joe Coughlin, the Boston-Irish son of an even more Irish police captain (Brendan Gleeson), who takes up crime as a form of entrepreneurship after returning from World War I. But he’s not a gangster, understand; he’s just a stick-up man and bank robber who means to stay independent of the gangland empires of both the Irish Albert White (Robert Glenister) and the Italian Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). And yet he takes up with White’s mistress, Emma (Sienna Miller). When a job goes sideways and White finds out about them, Joe goes to prison and Emma’s car goes into the river. Upon his release, Joe strikes a deal with Pescatore to head up his operations in Tampa, where White has moved his business.
The web of allegiances in Tampa can be the most interesting part of the movie, but also the most difficult to follow, and they take up lots of screen time just setting up, leaving little time to exploit them for a story. Joe and his partner, Dion (Chris Messina) strike a deal to produce and distribute rum with the local Cuban powerbroker, Esteban Suarez (Miguel J. Pimentel), and Joe takes up with his sister, Graciella (Zoe Saldana). They make nice with the local sheriff (Chris Cooper), but have a little more trouble with his brother-in-law (Chris Sullivan). Ku Klux Klan members tend to look down on Blacks, Catholics, and miscegenation, so Joe and Graciella hit the trifecta with him.
Oh, and then there’s this whole other angle to the plot about the sheriff’s daughter, Loretta (Elle Fanning), who has left for a Hollywood screen test and gotten herself into trouble out west. She returns safely thanks to Joe’s connections and turns anti-vice revival preacher a la Aimee Semple McPherson, much to his chagrin as he’s trying to set up a casino for Pescatore. And yet he can’t bring himself to do what his boss would obviously want and nip this problem in the bud.
Something about this relationship never quite rings true. We can understand it a bit in terms of Joe’s central conflict: can he be cruel enough to wield power? Which is itself a watered-down version of Michael Corleone’s conflict from The Godfather. But in terms of any actual interaction between Joe and Loretta, it’s hard to see what makes her any different to him than anyone else. The same goes for his two paramours, for that matter. Their relationships are almost totally unexamined, and exist more to soften Joe’s character rather than offer any real insight into it.
Between all this, there are some decent action scenes, which is great if that’s all you’re looking for in a gang movie. If you want substance, Live By Night makes a few motions in that direction but never comes up with anything much.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.